May 7, 2010
Is May Day dead in SVG?


Over the last weekend and right up to early this week, news reports from around the world gave details of activities held to commemorate International Workers Day, May Day as it is more commonly known. Trade union leaders at various rallies and other functions organised to mark the occasion spoke of the achievements and aspirations of working people and put forward proposals for preserving the hard-won gains of the trade union movement.{{more}} The Caribbean was no exception, with a range of activities held, from Guyana in the south to Jamaica in the north, with even Government and Opposition leaders having their say, too.

All except St. Vincent and the Grenadines, it seems. Here, May Day has had the honour of being restored to its former position of an official holiday on May 1, a direct result of continued clamour by the Labour and progressive movements and response by the new Gonsalves administration in 2001. In some of our neighbouring countries where May Day was commemorated, the May Day holiday is still on the first Monday in May as it was here, pre-2001. That did not stop the Labour Movement from organising activities for the occasion. So what is the problem in this fair land of ours?

It must be borne in mind that, in addition to meeting trade union demands for the “restoration” of May Day to its official holiday status, the current administration, branding itself as a “labour” government, meaning a government partial to the working people and labour movement, has also demonstrated its open support for the trade union movement. There is a Tri-partite Commitee on the economy with labour, government and the private sector represented; trade union representation on a number of Boards and institutions has been assured, and there has been a number of measures, legislatively and in successive Budgets, favouring the working people.

In spite of this favourable, enabling environment, the trade union movement seems not to have flourished. The case of May Day is perhaps the outstanding example. Over the years, Labour Minister, Hon. Rene Baptiste, has gone out of her way to try to facilitate the revival of May Day, and generally in giving support to the labour movement. But neither the movement itself nor workers generally has reciprocated. Activities organised for May 1 have, over the years, been very poorly attended and supported, to the extent where May Day has, for all practical purposes, become almost irrelevant. So why do we have May 1 as a holiday?

It must be remembered that many people, in trade unions and without, were not in favour of shifting May Day from the first Monday in May, to May 1, on the grounds of practicality. It is far more convenient for all to have a holiday at the beginning of the week, providing an extended weekend as well as avoiding disruption, either in mid-week or on the busy Fridays and Saturdays. The argument also extended to the shift from August Monday to August 1, to mark Emancipation Day. The merits of observing those days as official holidays would best be demonstrated by positive responses by the people in whose honour the restoration was made, workers in the case of May Day, and black people for Emancipation Day.

Sadly, it has not happened in either case. May Day is even worse than Emancipation Day.

True there are objective challenges to the labour movement, but the reality is that even in circumstances which are definitely not anti-working class, the movement has failed to capitalise on opportunities. It can not merely confine itself to a role which is based around increased wages or preventing job losses. This is the 21st century. The role of the trade union has long since expanded beyond such narrow confines.

In the process, the trade union movement is in danger of losing much of its significance, if not relevance. While, naturally, the leaders must shoulder much of the blame, workers as a whole cannot escape responsibility. We are in danger of allowing all for which our forebears fought, and made sacrifices to achieve, to be frittered away by indifference. May Day is but one example. How can we justify its continued status as a public holiday when we allow it to pass without so much as a whisper?